The All-22 Review is a recurring feature here at Music City Miracles breaking down the tape from the previous week’s Titans game. The focus will vary depending on where the action on the field takes us, but the idea is to bring insights that may have been missed on the TV broadcast.
The Titans defense was a solid unit in 2018, ranking third in the NFL in scoring defense and fifth in points allowed per drive. There were some holes though, most notably a lack of ability to get pressure without blitzing.
Starting edge rushers Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan combined for just two sacks all season and the entire group of defensive linemen and edge rushers combined for just 19.5 sacks, one fewer than Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald got by himself in 2018.
Dean Pees was able to mask that deficiency for the most part with creative blitzes, resulting in five members of the secondary and off ball linebacker position groups finishing with multiple sacks, led by Jayon Brown’s six.
The offseason saw Jon Robinson bring in 37-year old edge rusher Cameron Wake to help add some juice to the pass rush. The team also drafted talented defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons in the first round, though he won’t be available until Week 7 at the very earliest. Fifth round pick D’Andre Walker was more of a depth selection than an instant impact candidate so the Titans were primarily banking on the addition of Wake and the development of second year edge rushers Harold Landry and Sharif Finch to take the pass rush to new heights.
So far, so good.
The Titans sacked Baker Mayfield five times in the 2019 opener, matching their season high from 2018. To put that in perspective, Mayfield had only been sacked five times total since Freddie Kitchens took over as playcaller eight games into last season.
It should be noted that the Browns offensive line is bad — and they lost their starting left tackle (not a good left tackle, but the best they’ve got) midway through the second quarter making them worse — but this pass rush looked like the real deal for one week at least.
The best part about the pressure and sacks the Titans were able to generate is how they were able to generate them. Tennessee sent five or more rushers just five times in this game, yielding a true blitz rate of just 7.8% which is significantly lower than the 27.2% rate they used in 2018. In fact, the Titans sent just three pass rushers more often than they sent five or more in this game.
The other trend busting statistic for the defense is the amount of man coverage that Dean Pees deployed. In 2018, the Titans were in man coverage on 42.6% of defensive snaps, good for 12th most in the NFL. Against the Browns, the Titans were in man on just 15.6% of snaps, choosing instead to sit back in variations of Cover 2 and Cover 3 zones for the vast majority of the game.
One trend that continued from 2018 was the use of nickel personnel. Last season, the Titans were nickel on 73% of defensive snaps, good for ninth most in the NFL. The breakdown of snaps by personnel package against the Browns is below:
- Nickel (5 DBs): 46 snaps
- Big Dime (6 DBs): 23 snaps
- Base (4 DBs): 0 snaps
The Titans lived in their nickel and big dime packages during this game, even sticking with the smaller groups when backed up on their own goal line. The typical nickel package featured four pass rushers with Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans at linebacker and Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, Adoree’ Jackson, Kevin Byard, and Kenny Vaccaro behind them.
The big dime package generally included four pass rushers — Evans was often one of them — with Jayon Brown as the lone off ball linebacker and Amani Hooker joining the other five defensive backs on the field. In that package, Kenny Vaccaro mostly operated as a slot corner/linebacker, but there were a lot of looks the Titans flashed at Mayfield from both packages.
This was a really fun tape to watch for several reasons. First, Dean Pees really showed off the depth of his toolbox. The Titans ran at least eight distinct coverage looks at the Browns throughout the game. Sometimes they would bracket Odell Beckham Jr., sometimes they would show Cover 2 and rotate to Cover 3 after the snaps, sometimes they would show Cover 2 and rotate to another arrangement of Cover 2 post-snap. Even though they only rushed five or more a handful of times, they used zone blitzes and overload blitzes to create pressure without sacrificing their back end. They dropped eight into coverage seven different times in the game. It was a total mixed bag and the effect was a very confused quarterback.
Let’s start with the two Cameron Wake sacks. Our own John Kinsley broke down Wake’s impressive pass rush moves already, but let’s take a look at what the Titans did on the back end to help give Wake time to get there.
As I mentioned, the Titans rotated coverages post-snap a lot in this game, forcing Mayfield to constantly question his pre-snap reads. In this case, the defense starts in a Cover 2 look, but instead of a “normal” Cover 2, they send a corner blitz with Malcolm Butler and rotate the entire secondary to replace his spot. Baker sees the blitz coming, but rookie safety Amani Hooker is too quick to replace Butler for him to fit the ball into Beckham. Wake’s easy pass rush win makes sure that Mayfield never gets to his second read.
That wasn’t the only time the youngest player on the Titans roster helped the oldest player on the roster make a big play. Shortly after the play above, Wake got home for his 100th career sack, in large part, because of the efforts of Hooker.
This time the Titans are in Quarters coverage. As one of the interior deep defenders, Hooker’s responsibility is to read the No. 2 receiver on his half of the field (aka the second pass catcher counting in from the sidelines). If the No. 2 — in this case a tight end — comes vertical, he becomes Hooker’s man. If he runs away across the defense or stays in to block, Hooker is supposed to buzz out to bracket the No. 1 — in this case, Odell Beckham Jr. — with the boundary corner (Butler here). He does exactly that once he sees the tight end staying in to block and the quickness of his recognition and reaction allow him to get underneath the blaze out that OBJ is running and forces Mayfield to hesitate. That’s all the time Wake needed to beat right tackle Chris Hubbard and get the safety. For a guy who didn’t record a single box score stat, Hooker made quite the debut.
Logan Ryan leads all defensive backs with 5.5 sacks since the start of last season, adding 1.5 in this game after having 4 last season. In addition to providing excellent coverage in the slot, Ryan does so much more for this Titans defense. He’s good in run support, allowing Dean Pees to stick in nickel personnel even when the opponent puts heavier personnel groups on the field. He’s also outstanding as a blitzer, consistently showing good timing and closing speed. Here, the Titans move their coverage look again, lining up in a Quarters look pre-snap, only to rotate down to Cover 3 when Ryan blitzes.
Before we move into the pass rush, let’s take a look at the three second half interceptions that helped the Titans finally break the Browns. It starts with an excellent play by All-Pro safety Kevin Byard.
Want a fun stat? Byard leads all NFL players — including Browns players — with four interceptions in Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium since 2015 (before Byard even came into the league!!!) despite playing just two games there during that time period. His fourth was an example of his prodigious ballhawking ability. The Titans disguise their coverage pre-snap again, showing Cover 2 before rotating into Cover 3. After getting to his landmark, Byard recognizes the back is staying in to protect and his zone is empty so he reads Mayfield’s eyes and goes looking for work. The throw here is a little behind Baker’s target which allows Byard to undercut it and take it back the other way for his 13th career interception.
The very next drive Logan Ryan gets his first interception as a Titan — hard to believe considering how well he’s played here — undercutting Jarvis Landry’s quick out route and taking the ball away. Again, the Titans rotate coverage looks from Cover 2 to Cover 3 after the snap, but it doesn’t really look like Mayfield is fooled. He’s looking right at Landry who has Ryan right in his hip pocket the whole way and just makes a poor decision to try and force it in. Excellent coverage by Ryan and a good job taking advantage of the mistake.
To finish off the Browns, Malcolm Butler got his second pick six in his last three games on a poor pass from Mayfield that glanced off the hands of a Browns receiver and into Butler’s path. This was the sixth pass of the game that found a Titans defensive back’s hands. Adoree’ Jackson dropped one on the first drive and Kenny Vaccaro and Butler both had chances to pick off passes in the second half as well. The most impressive part of this play by Butler was actually the return though. Not only does he do a great tight rope to stay in bounds at the end, but he hit a top speed of 21.5 miles per hour according to the NFL’s NextGen Stats, good for the second fastest speed among all ball carriers in Week 1 behind the Giants Saquon Barkley. Butler still has some wheels at age 29.
Cameron Wake has long been an efficiency monster when it comes to rushing the passer, ranking among the top ten edge rushers in PFF’s Pass Rush Productivity metric every single season for the last seven years. He’s looking like a good bet to make that eight straight years. After Week 1, Wake ranks first among qualifying edge rushers, tallying three sacks (PFF doesn’t give half sacks), one hit, and one pressure on just 20 pass rush snaps. He routinely abused whoever the Browns lined up at right tackle with his explosive first step and refined hands. Here, he makes quick work of Justin McCray before destroying Baker just as the ball comes out.
Wake was absolutely dominant on Sunday.
His partner on the opposite side wasn’t bad either. Despite not registering a sack in the game, Harold Landry was very active and came within inches of getting to Mayfield a couple times. Here is one of those near misses as Landry comes screaming around the edge with a dip and rip move and just misses getting his right hand on the ball for a strip sack by inches.
Landry’s best pass rush of the day came on this chop move around the edge. He absolutely destroys Chris Hubbard — who had a very very bad day dealing with Wake and Landry — and would have had a sack if not for a hold by Hubbard that kept him from finishing.
Sharif Finch played a lot of snaps — mostly on run downs — but he got in on the pass rush action a little as well, registering his first sack of 2019 on this play. An assist to Isaiah Mack here as well. The undrafted rookie played a lot in this game and showed off some of the quickness that makes him a handful to deal with on the interior of the defensive line. Here, he beats the right guard and forces the back to step up to help. That leaves nobody home when Finch beats his man. I’ll be the first to admit that this play shouldn’t have been whistled dead, but it’s a nice play from Finch and Mack nonetheless.
I thought both Mack and Finch had really nice games that went a little underrated during my first watch. Here, they combine to make a stop on Browns running back Nick Chubb. Mack’s play here to beat center J.C. Tretter is really nice.
The Titans run defense was just OK in this one. They gave up 102 yards on 20 carries which yields a little better than 5 yards per carry. You’d like to see that number closer to 4. However, part of that is reflective of the defensive game plan. Sticking in nickel and dime sets all game, Dean Pees was willing to give up some heft up front in the running game to protect against the Browns prolific passing attack. He was betting that Freddie Kitchens wouldn’t stay patient with the ground game and he was right.
The Titans are able to defend the run well enough in light packages though, thanks to players like Jurrell Casey and Rashaan Evans. Neither guy had his best game on Sunday, but they combined here to disrupt Chubb. Casey splitting a double team and Evans rocking the center several yards deep in the backfield, forcing the back to immediately change directions.
It will be interesting to see how Dean Pees approaches this week’s game against the Colts. Indianapolis likes to run a lot more heavy personnel, and unlike Cleveland, they will beat you up with Marlon Mack and the running game if you let them. The Titans bag of tricks on defense is deep though — a benefit of having a creative defensive coordinator along with a secondary full of talented veterans (and one rookie that already plays like a veteran) — and I’m looking forward to tracking the trends throughout the season.